Innovation the tipping point in comparing education in U.S. and China

January 23, 2011 — by Samika Kumar

“Why does China produce so many clever people, but so few geniuses?”

The world may never know if Chinese rocket scientist Qian Xuesen asked such a question with tongue-in-cheek humor or sincere concern. However, Xuesen’s speculations carry weight on the present and future.

Visit schools in Shanghai, China, and one finds hardworking students buried in an avalanche of schoolwork and pressure. Their lives almost revolve around tests. These astute children and teenagers watch little television and may remain at school until 4 p.m. Their rigorous work occupies most of the weekends.

Sounds like Saratoga High? Perhaps, but there is a tipping point that Saratoga High and other distinguished U.S. schools have been taking into account. A sense of innovation derived from creativity, leadership and independent thinking.

While China may produce more of Xuesen’s “clever people” than it manufactures goods, at the end of the day, is this what China—or any industrial country—really needs? As technology and infrastructure flourish, quick, accurate test-takers will not contribute to the world’s maturation. Modern society calls for intelligent, independent thinkers who can create, construct and develop.

Current statistics show that the U.S. is not the exemplar in academics. However, there is more to projecting future national success and progress than simply test score statistics. After all, swallowing loads of content—like the information to pass a test—just to spit it out again in the real working world helps no one except the Guinness Book of World Records.

Creativity and innovation are the keys to modern success. Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg did not unify over 500 million individuals into a single website using solely algorithms he had memorized. Some three decades earlier, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs did not help construct the first Apple computer with the aid of just textbooks and manuals. These innovators used their education and creativity to harness their ideas into international advances.

Although the U.S. lags behind its Chinese counterparts in test-taking, the former produces independently thinking adults. For example, extracurricular activities in America build communication skills, responsibility and imagination while allowing the individual to find key interests to develop.

Additionally, U.S. schools embrace various styles of learning—such as simulations, lectures and hands-on projects—and focus on multiple aspects of education. In most U.S. public schools, tests and quizzes hold substantial weight on a grade, but so do projects, homework and class participation.

With the help of some pointers from China’s academic success, America’s overall education system is aimed in the correct direction. Politicians and educators are working on boosting America’s education, and with time, U.S. academic performance will improve. Innovation and creativity will not be forgotten because they are continuously emphasized. China’s education model is internationally acclaimed, but its students are drowning in an overload of schoolwork and stress. The model disregards what the future really needs—innovators.

So how important are test-taking skills and pure memorization? Xuesen’s question reflects the thinking of parents and children alike. China prevails in test-taking and academic knowledge. With time and effort, other nations may reach and match China’s educational accomplishments. But at the end of the day, which nation will produce the most successful individuals and overall better future? The nation that takes into account the tipping point of innovation.

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